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Proposed bill would require alleged abusers to give up guns

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Safe Futures in New London is among the many groups advocating for a controversial bill that, if passed, would require those who become subject to temporary restraining orders to relinquish their firearms while they wait for their court dates.

Under House Bill 5054, those served with a temporary restraining order would need to turn over their firearms and ammunition within 24 hours.

They'd be without the guns for at least the two weeks until their court hearing — a period of time domestic violence experts consider "volatile."

But some — primarily gun rights groups — are worried the bill's provisions infringe on citizens' due process rights.

Kathie Verano, director of client services at Safe Futures, formerly the Women's Center of SE CT, said not all restraining order applications result in ex parte orders or a restraining order that is issued in an uncontested proceeding in which only one party is heard.

After a victim has filled out an affidavit about his or her situation under oath, a judge reviews it and decides how to handle the case.

Only in those cases where what's written in the affidavit suggests the victim is subject to a "level of extreme danger" are people served with ex parte restraining orders and given a hearing date, Verano said.

From July 1, 2008, to Oct. 1, 2015, records show, about 54 percent of those 36,800 hearings resulted in a permanent, year-long restraining order.

Scott Wilson, president of the Groton-based Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said that since 45 percent of the orders don't end up being permanent, it calls into question the validity of the order in the first place.

"Based on those statistics, nearly half of the people would have turned over their guns that really didn't have to," he said.

He said the proposed law tramples on due process rights of gun owners, especially those who have done nothing wrong.

"These are temporary restraining orders, which is a one-sided order. There is no due process, no opportunity to be heard before an individual is ordered to turn over their firearms within 24 hours," Wilson said.

"My feeling is that if a judge can compel one individual to inventory and gather all their firearms and ammunition within 24 hours under threat of a felony charge, that same judge can order two people to show up for a hearing within 24 hours."

In addition, Wilson said, police already have the ability to seize firearms with a risk warrant, something he said is used when police investigate a complaint and determine someone is a threat.  

As for due process, Verano said, losing some rights already is part of the temporary restraining order process.

"If a judge decides what's written in the affidavit raises the case to the level of ex parte, all other provisions (of a restraining order) go into effect at that time," Verano explained. "You may be removed from your home. You can't see your children, or go within 100 yards of where they're living."

"To be told, you can't do all that, but hold onto your firearm? Something's missing here," she continued.

About 20 other states already have laws similar to the one proposed in Connecticut on the books, Verano added.

In Connecticut, perpetrators used firearms in 39 percent of the 188 intimate partner homicides that occurred from 2000 to 2012, according to the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Statistics showing how many, if any, of those occurred during the two-week waiting period weren't immediately available.

Verano, who said she's worked with Safe Futures for 22 years, said she's seen plenty of situations where an abuser has confronted a victim after being served with a temporary restraining order, although she couldn't remember any that resulted in a fatality.

"Domestic violence is about power and control," Verano said. "Once (an abuser) is served with a restraining order, they realize they're losing control over that person. That's what makes it such a volatile time."

Verano said in many cases, victims and their families, knowing their abusers still have firearms in their possession, seek refuge in Safe Futures' shelter.

While there, the victims can't go to work and their children either miss school or are sent elsewhere.

"It disrupts the children's life, the victim's life," she said.

Statewide, the 18 programs under the umbrella of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence — including Safe Futures — served 41,446 victims in fiscal year 2015.

In southeastern Connecticut, Verano said, Safe Futures services about 5,500 victims annually through its hotline, court advocates, two counseling offices, law enforcement advocates, emergency shelter and transitional living program.

Some of those are referred to the nonprofit through the Lethality Assessment Program, in which trained police officers ask questions and identify at the scene whether a domestic violence victim is in danger of being murdered or seriously injured.

Last month, Verano said, police found 31 of the 51 victims who were asked questions to be in high danger, meaning Safe Futures was brought into the picture immediately.

She said the bill is "not just about someone losing the right to carry their guns."

Verano, who said she's been a gun permit holder for many years, said she happily allowed her father to relieve her of her firearm while she was going through a divorce.

"We wish people would understand (the bill) a little more," she said. "People have every right to carry weapons. It's just an especially emotional time, so people have to use their use heads."

Editor's note: this version includes comments from Scott Wilson, president of the Groton-based Connecticut Citizens Defense League, on the proposed legislation.

l.boyle@theday.com

g.smith@theday.com

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